This was the American landscape that lay open to the virus: in prosperous cities, a class of globally connected desk workers dependent on a class of precarious and invisible service workers; in the countryside, decaying communities in revolt against the modern world; on social media, mutual hatred and endless vituperation among different camps; in the economy, even with full employment, a large and growing gap between triumphant capital and beleaguered labor; in Washington, an empty government led by a con man and his intellectually bankrupt party; around the country, a mood of cynical exhaustion, with no vision of a shared identity or future.
If the pandemic really is a kind of war, it’s the first to be fought on this soil in a century and a half. Invasion and occupation expose a society’s fault lines, exaggerating what goes unnoticed or accepted in peacetime, clarifying essential truths, raising the smell of buried rot.
The virus should have united Americans against a common threat. With different leadership, it might have. Instead, even as it spread from blue to red areas, attitudes broke down along familiar partisan lines. The virus also should have been a great leveler. You don’t have to be in the military or in debt to be a target—you just have to be human. But from the start, its effects have been skewed by the inequality that we’ve tolerated for so long. When tests for the virus were almost impossible to find, the wealthy and connected—the model and reality-TV host Heidi Klum, the entire roster of the Brooklyn Nets, the president’s conservative allies—were somehow able to get tested, despite many showing no symptoms. The smattering of individual results did nothing to protect public health. Meanwhile, ordinary people with fevers and chills had to wait in long and possibly infectious lines, only to be turned away because they weren’t actually suffocating. An internet joke proposed that the only way to find out whether you had the virus was to sneeze in a rich person’s face.
When Trump was asked about this blatant unfairness, he expressed disapproval but added, “Perhaps that’s been the story of life.” Most Americans hardly register this kind of special privilege in normal times. But in the first weeks of the pandemic it sparked outrage, as if, during a general mobilization, the rich had been allowed to buy their way out of military service and hoard gas masks. As the contagion has spread, its victims have been likely to be poor, black, and brown people. The gross inequality of our health-care system is evident in the sight of refrigerated trucks lined up outside public hospitals.
We now have two categories of work: essential and nonessential. Who have the essential workers turned out to be? Mostly people in low-paying jobs that require their physical presence and put their health directly at risk: warehouse workers, shelf-stockers, Instacart shoppers, delivery drivers, municipal employees, hospital staffers, home health aides, long-haul truckers. Doctors and nurses are the pandemic’s combat heroes, but the supermarket cashier with her bottle of sanitizer and the UPS driver with his latex gloves are the supply and logistics troops who keep the frontline forces intact. In a smartphone economy that hides whole classes of human beings, we’re learning where our food and goods come from, who keeps us alive. An order of organic baby arugula on AmazonFresh is cheap and arrives overnight in part because the people who grow it, sort it, pack it, and deliver it have to keep working while sick. For most service workers, sick leave turns out to be an impossible luxury. It’s worth asking if we would accept a higher price and slower delivery so that they could stay home.